A partial ninth-century crisis 2: crisis and non-crisis

My second report on the recent Cambridge conference ‘Crisis, what crisis? The long ninth century’ focuses on three papers looking at the concept of crisis from a more textual perspective. First up was Nora Berend on ‘The concept of Christendom: a product of crisis?’. This was a very neat take on when ‘christianitas’ came to include ‘Christendom’ as one of its meaning: the creation of a self-identification of all believers. Some scholars have seen this as a creation of the eleventh century reform papacy, others have seen it as replacing the idea of ‘ecclesia’ from the ninth century. It’s often been assumed that the papacy took the lead in this new self-definition, and that’s it connected with hostility to the Muslims. The late ninth century pope John VIII (872-882) has been seen as playing a key role: Dominique Iogna-Prat has argued for his reign as being a turning point.

Nora was looking at John’s letters, which were written at a time when the Arabs were increasingly powerful in Italy: they controlled Sicily and had bases on the Italian mainland. The idea of Christendom and its defence turns up in them, but mainly as a way of universalizing the defence of Rome and the papal state. It was also used by John in complaints about ‘bad Christians’ who were allying with the Saracens, such as Count Lambert of Spoleto. (As I indicated in the previous post, there was evidently quite a lot of that going on in late ninth-century Italy). John told Lambert he should instead be working for the defence of the lands of St Peter and the whole of Christendom.

In other words, the concept of Christendom is a way of turning up the rhetoric to make local threats seem significant to outsiders. Nora also pointed out that the Saracens tend to be regarded as military rather than a religious threat. John VIII is keen to depict a crisis, with claims of desecration, the killing of priests and nuns, his own persecution etc, by the abominable, savage, thieving, sons of fornication, locust-like pagans/Ishamelites/Saracens/enemies of the Cross of Christ, along with those who are ‘Christian in name only’. But he doesn’t show Islam actually as a religion, as an independent form of belief. It’s not primarily a religious war we’re dealing with here: Christendom as a concept is just being used for a particular political goal.

Deflating of crises proved to be something of a theme of the two other historical papers as well. Firstly, we had Máire Ní Mhaonaigh on ‘A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Ireland’s Viking Age’. This was looking at three alleged effects that the Viking raiding had on Ireland – a shift of scholarship from northern to southern Ireland, a cessation of learned activity (especially in the C10) and a move into writing in Irish and away from Latin. She was arguing that this supposed crisis was more apparent than real. Though the dating of some texts is problematic, manuscripts show scholarly continuity – for example, the Mac Durnan Gospels from the early tenth century are in very similar script to the Book of Armagh from the early eighth century, suggesting a continued scribal tradition. This is despite the fact that Armagh suffered repeated raids in the ninth century. (Though when you hear that in 832 Armagh was plundered three times in a month, you do start wondering exactly how thorough the plundering was).

Ní Mhaonaigh then went on to argue that it wasn’t just at Armagh that scholarship continued. The suggestion that the community on Iona ended after 807 (relocating to Kells) doesn’t seem to hold up. The bishop poet of Kildare, Orthanach ua Caellama, kept writing, despite Kildare being plundered and half burnt in 836. (She also mentioned that the Kildare army had been plundering the community of Tallaght in 824, reminding us that it’s not just Vikings who attack monasteries). Another poet, Mael Muru Othna (d. 887) came from Fahan, Co. Donegal, showing yet another region with continued cultural activity.

Ní Mhaonaigh was more open to the suggestion of a move towards the vernacular, although she pointed out that it was already significant in the pre-Viking period. Possibly the Viking influence was here part of a wider pattern of changes – she suggested that may have been an exodus of scholars to Francia in the early ninth century. But another factor was the beginnings of Irish court literature: for example, the king-bishop of Cashel, Cormac mac Cuilennain, gathered a group of intellectuals around him and set up a scriptorium in Cashel. There was a strengthening of vernacular writing, but that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that Latin was weakening – indeed Ní Mhaonaigh argued that some of the new developments of intellectual life in the period would have impressed Alfred. She ended, though, by admitting that it was very hard to counter popular image of the Vikings as looters of manuscripts, and to the biggest laughs of the conference, played the trailer for a new animated film, ‘The Secret of Kells’. [Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the specific trailer she played – it doesn’t seem to be the main one on the film’s website].

Finally, we had Rosamond McKitterick on ‘Representations of crisis in ninth-century Francia’. This was a paper covering familiar ground to Carolingianists, pointing out that if we read many of the ninth-century annals without nineteenth and twentieth century preconceptions, we mainly get an impression of Vikings as an ‘ordinary’, if non-Christian people. They’re not just bands of marauding pillagers, but polities interacting diplomatically with Carolingian rulers. Rosamond was also playing down the significance of the Frankish political developments at the end of the ninth century, at one point referring to the ‘Transformation of the Carolingian World’ (as a parallel to the ‘Transformation of the Roman World’). This may be overstating the case rather for my taste, but there was a valid point that if you start by seeing a crisis at the end of the ninth century, then it’s all too easy to presume that the Vikings must be somehow responsible.

Rosamond also raised the question of how a ‘crisis’ should be defined: should we be thinking of it in a medical sense as a short, sharp shock, or was it more of a longue durée? I raised the point in questions about the idea of crisis as performative: that a crisis existed when someone said there was one loudly enough. I got this idea of crisis as subjective from scholarship on modern ‘crises of masculinity’ and I still think it’s a very useful concept. In particular, it potentially gives us a way to get beyond some of the problems of deciding whether there was or was not a ‘crisis’ in the ninth century. It’s useful to try and make objective assessments of whether there was economic growth or not in particular regions, but that doesn’t necessarily translate neatly into how people felt. As the UK at the moment shows, the overall state of the economy, the economic position of particular individuals within that economy, and their confidence about the future are only weakly correlated.

I think it’s perfectly possible to argue that on balance the Vikings had less of an impact on western Europe in the ninth century than the Franks had had in the late eighth century. It’s just that we have no Saxon or Avar historians to tell us about the crisis the Carolingians created. But that doesn’t exclude the Vikings having had a devastating impact on some particular regions (northern Scotland is one obvious example) or provoking a deep sense of crisis in some people. Alcuin’s writings on the sack of Lindisfarne clearly show this, for example. Again, modern parallels may be useful to start us thinking about such matters: how the demonising of enemies can be combined with attempts to deal with them in ordinary ways, to give us the apparent oxymoron of the ‘moderate Taliban’ or Ronald Reagan negotiating with the ‘evil empire’. The role of the media and politicians in ‘creating’ crises is also always worth bearing in mind. But so too is the shock effect of particular forms of violence. I’ve written before, for example, about the fact that the 11th of September attacks don’t look that destructive on a historical scale and I still think that holds true. But a historian in 2100 is going to have to try to understand the subjective threat felt by millions of Americans thousands of miles away from New York if they’re going to explain the US’s foreign policy in the early twenty first century. A crisis is a hard concept to pin down and analyse even with modern amounts of evidence: it’s not surprising that we struggle to define and assess it for the ninth century.


10 thoughts on “A partial ninth-century crisis 2: crisis and non-crisis

  1. This is just a brief comment to mention, in general, how much I enjoy your posts. I know it takes a fair amount of time to put posts of that quality up. In this post I particularly enjoyed your last paragraph. I’ve always felt the same holds true, basically, for Martel’s victory over Abd al-Rahman at Poitiers – it may not have had all that much direct impact on history but the advance of Islam very likely was viewed by contemporaries as a pretty serious threat (“sense of doom” seems to me to be taking that a bit too far – and overly melodramatic – but reading some of that into the reactions to Poitiers seems reasonable).


    • The problem looking at early eighth century perceptions of the Saracen threat is that all the Frankish sources date from a fair bit later. Roger Collins is now arguing that the relevant bit of Fredegar was only written in 751, for example. By the 780s, when the Royal Frankish Annals are being written, the Saracens look like ‘normal’ enemies of the Franks: they are a nuisance, but not particularly different from other pagan enemies, such as the Saxons. But how many decades further back that attitude goes is very hard to know. To make it even more difficult, there are writers like Bede who are intellectual seismographs, ready to interpret any unusual event as a sign of the vast eternal plan of God. To be honest I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what even well-informed contemporaries as a whole thought.


  2. This is John from Haquelebac.

    I am curious as to what you think of Hodges’ theory that the Vikings were the link between Western Europe and the East (Byzantium and Baghdad) and played an important positive role in this respect.

    I also see the period 800-1000 as a time when N. Europe and the Norse gradually became the same people, with the Christians (partly under Christianized Norse leadership) hardening up their militaries, their tax systems, etc., and the Norse Christianizing and adopting state forms and entering the normal diplomatic community.

    According to this theory (I don’t say it’s original, obvs.) once N. Europe was hardened and normalized in France and England, there was a lot of military energy to spare which first was used in Norman Siciliy (more like a pirate raid) and later in the Crusades.

    Until finally, in the Fourth Crusade the Normans met the Varangians defending the Byzantine Emperor and killed most of them. Quite a neat story.

    Sorry to dump all this on you, but I seldom meet a medievalist these days and have to take the opportunity when it arises.


  3. I won’t pre-empt Magistra too much here, but would at least say that I think that the flow of goods shows fairly clearly that for the areas in Hodges’s North Sea network, the traffic through Scandinavia and ‘Rus is immensely important, and the pattern of finds of dirhams shows this especially well. However, even in those areas it’s obviously not the only such link: Sicily and the Byzantine Adriatic form a much more direct one for Italy, continually being refreshed and the route through which most of the political contact goes; and then of course there’s Spain, which does something very similar for Southern France.

    I would also pin the apparent military overspill in the eleventh century not on Vikings in any major way but just on demographic and economic growth, myself, but Magistra’s view here may well differ.


  4. I think Richard Hodges himself has changed his views a lot since ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’, mainly because of new archaeological evidence. There’s a brief summary of his more recent views in ‘Goodbye to the Vikings?’, History Today, Sep 2004, 29-30 (and I think there’s also a book of the same name by him which includes others of his more recent papers). There’s also been a lot of synthesis done by Chris Wickham (in Framing the Early Middle Ages, which I’m currently blogging about and Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy (which is squatting on my bookshelf, almost too heavy to lift, and which I’ve only glanced at).

    The new archaeological evidence includes a lot of coin finds from England and Holland and redating of some of the emporia (trading ports). They suggest that the eighth century north European economy was already starting to expand (after a low in the seventh century), but also that trade routes didn’t necessarily stay the same. Some of the emporia were in decline even before the Viking raids increased from 840 onward, but there were also new towns and trade links developing. So the Vikings certainly affected trade routes, but they didn’t either create a North Sea trade system or destroy one, they just pushed it around a bit.

    Michael McCormick’s focus is on the Mediterranean, and he argues that there’s an upsurge in long-distance trade there from the late eighth century, with Venice as the linch-pin. Western states were importing eastern luxuries and exporting mostly slaves. Chris Wickham, meanwhile, argues that long-distance trade has been over-rated as an economic driver. He thinks that local market exchanges (especially internal to the Carolingian empire) were what really boosted the economy of NW Europe. Taking all three together, long-distance trade specifically via Scandinavian/Russian routes isn’t looking as central to ninth-century economic development as it once was thought to be (though it was definitely happening).

    I don’t think the basic narrative of the Norse getting normalized and incorporated into the ‘West’ has changed much, though Danish developments now seem to have happened earlier than had previously been suggested (a reasonably powerful state by around 800) possibly because they were being threatened by the Carolingians and needed to organise fast. I’d say that the Franks were already pretty ‘hardened’ by 800, and had a powerful state before the Viking raids started. There’s more of an argument that it was only thanks to the effects of the Vikings that the rulers of Wessex got the chance to become kings of England. And any Carolingianist will tell you that Alfred’s England is just a copy of Francia with added Beowulf.

    As for Viking influence making the Normans expansionist thugs, Normandy lost any Scandinavian cultural influence pretty quickly (there are very few Norse elements in place names, for example). I’d see the Normans more in the Frankish tradition, as expansionist thugs who were very good at co-opting the church and intellectuals to justify their aggression. (And of course the tradition continues: I was writing the section of my thesis on Carolingian authors’ justification of attacking other peoples in 2001/2002, and some of the contemporary arguments had a horrible familiarity). Back in the ninth century, Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard quoted a Greek proverb: ‘Have a Frank as your friend, not as your neighbour’. Once the Norman ruling class had secured the duchy, finished oppressing their peasants enough to be able to get a decent living out of a relatively small territory, and found that they couldn’t defeat the French king, they had to find somebody else to attack or what was the point of being nobles? And since by the eleventh century shipping had improved enough to allow them to transport armies overseas, a whole new set of targets came into view.


  5. First, let me say thanks to you folks for continuing my education in these things. I always learn something from you.

    Second, apparently I’m going to have to slap some sense into a few Carolingianists…..there are some key and important differences between Charlemagne’s kingdom and Alfred’s.


    • I think those differences are very real, but I also think that Alfred was, in his own way, trying to reduce them. It’s one of the funny things about Carolingian power that even though we often see it as a shortlived failed attempt at universal dominion, it was a model for everyone else who wanted to make it big for many many years.

      Or, he may just have thought: “Literate administration, that would help. Also, didn’t Uncle Charles have a thing where he bridged rivers so the Vikings couldn’t sail up them?” He couldn’t have easily been unaware of the precedents, I reckon. So his real skill is perhaps working out what would and wouldn’t float from that repertoire of power in an English context, and of course you might take from the last chapter of Asser the notion that he didn’t necessarily estimate that 100% correctly.


  6. Well, England was pretty nordicized, with an actual Norwegian, an Anglo-Saxon with a Norse name, and a Norman (all cousins or something like that) competing for the throne in 1066.

    As for France, Charlemagne subjugated the Saxons but came to a standoff with the Normans and Danes. The Norse contribution to Norman culture might have been limited to military and political aspects (elite replacement) which can be transferred without labeling. Normally in military standoffs the two sides swap tactics and technology back and forth until equilibrium is reached.

    After 1066 or so Norway was a Christian nation practicing normal diplomacy and not a gang of pirates any more, England and France were secure, and either the bunch of them had to fight one another or they had to export their violence, and it was the Normans who exported first.


    • I wouldn’t say that England was enormously nordicised in the eleventh century: the English were still Christian and speaking Anglo-Saxon (if a slightly modified Anglo-Saxon), and their institutions and laws were still overwhelmingly native or Carolingian. And the Danish and Anglo-Saxon nobility had intermarried, rather than one elite replacing one another. King Harold II of England may have had a Danish name, but he also had a brother called Wulfnoth. And William the Bastard himself had at most two Scandinavian grandparents. There’s a big contrast between the situation before 1066 and after, when almost all the English aristocracy lost their land and the Norman/Plantagenet rulers of England didn’t marry ‘English’ wives for generations.

      As for military aspects, I’m not a military historian, but Simon Coupland argues that the key Viking tactical advantage over the Franks was their mobility (with their ships), which allowed them to raid, while avoiding pitched battles, and their ability to set up bases on fortified islands, which were very difficult for the Franks to attack. There’s not much evidence of them having better arms and armour: in fact Carolingian rulers were concerned about Vikings getting their hands on Carolingian war-gear and prohibited its export. The Viking attack certainly led to the Franks, and particularly the Anglo-Saxons developing new military tactics, but they didn’t adopt those specific Viking techniques (I’m less sure about whether there was adoption of Viking naval technology). As for 1066, John Gillingham (who knows more about Norman warfare than almost anyone else) discusses how it fits firmly within eleventh-century tactics focused on a landscape of castles.

      And in 1066, there was no ‘France’ (or rather the King of France controlled only a small part of the previous West Frankish kingdom). It took several hundreds of years of slow and determined warfare and diplomacy for the Capetians to gain control of most of what is now seen as France. There’s also a very interesting book by Rees Davies on ‘The First English Empire’, which looks at Norman attempts to colonise Wales, Ireland and Scotland. You shouldn’t underestimate how much warfare continued within France and the British Isles in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Crusades and the Norman conquest of Italy were additions to this, not replacements.


  7. Two grandparents is quite a few.

    The Norse must have had some advantage over the English, considering how far they got. They couldn’t have done that that with just sudden raids.

    And while the ASs continued to speak AS, their epic is about a Dane. I wasn’t arguing for the conversion of ASs and French into ethnic Danes, but the kind of trading that occurs across any frontier, for example between the Manchu and the Chinese. And the transformation of Norse into Christians took place during this same period. It’s not the case that either the Norse became AS or else the AS became Norse. It’s actually both, which is normally what happens across frontiers.

    For whatever reason, the ASs couldn’t defend themselves for a considerable period, and then finally learned how somehow. And the Danes and the French were at a standoff. The Norse had to have something going for them, considering that they lacked advantages the others clearly had, for example wealth and technology. (Arms and armor is where the French / English superiority woudl be expected to be.)

    After 800 AD the English and French were dealing with threats from strange people in the north. After 1066 s these threats dwindled, and the northerners were no longer strange. But it was a two transformation.

    This same thing comes up all the time in Chinese, where the non-Chinese border peopels are assumed to have made no positive contribution to any area of Chinese life, but just to be foreign irritants. But there are problems with that.

    I’m making a case, and I’m not in a position to go behind what I’ve just said. It just seems impossible to me that Danes/Norse could play the role they did for two and a half centuries without having quite a considerable effect. And the move to the Mediterranean coincides with the cessation of warfare in the north, and it was Norman.


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